If you like fastballs, pay close attention to St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Maikel Cleto, just promoted to the majors. Keep in mind that it takes more than pure heat to make a successful pitcher.
Cleto was originally signed by the New York Mets as a free agent from the Dominican Republic in 2006. After a pair of mediocre seasons in the low minors, he was involved in the December 2008, 12-player, three-way J.J. Putz trade which landed him in the Mariners system. More mediocre numbers resulted in 2009 (5.33 ERA in 25 innings in the Midwest League, with a 24/11 K/B but 35 hits allowed), then he was hit hard in the difficult environment at High Desert in the California League last year (6.16 ERA, 83/44 K/BB in 102 innings, 125 hits).
However, Cleto attracted notice by flashing power stuff in the Arizona Fall League, attracting attention of Cardinals scouts. St. Louis picked him up last December for Brendan Ryan, and he’s zipped rapidly through the system this year, spending time at High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A, with a brief major league audition in June. He’s back in the majors now for the September stretch run.
Cleto posted a 2.48 ERA with a 33/10 K/BB in 29 innings for High-A Palm Beach, followed by a 3.93 ERA with a 36/12 K/BB in 34 innings for Double-A Springfield. In Triple-A he had a 4.29 ERA with a 66/43 K/BB in 71 innings. Overall, he’s 8-6, 3.81 this year with a 135/65 K/BB in 135 innings with 117 hits allowed.
Cleto is 22 years old, and a big guy at 6-3, 235 pounds. Pure velocity is Cleto’s best attribute: he works in the mid-90s consistently and has hit 101-102 on some radar guns. He doesn’t always know where it is going due to an inconsistent release point. His basic delivery is sound but he needs to repeat it more efficiently, and made progress doing it this year. Tweaks made by Cardinals coaches have improved his command somewhat, as well as giving him more consistent peak velocity.
Cleto’s curveball and changeup were both rated as poor pitches when he was in the Mets and Mariners system, part of the reason he didn’t dominate despite the heat. Cardinals coaches have worked closely with him to refine the breaking ball (now more of a slider than a curve) and changeup, and word is that both pitches have improved considerably from where they were a year ago, although both remain inconsistent.
Cleto has usually been projected as a reliever, and indeed will hold down that role for the stretch run, but at least a few Texas League and PCL sources believe that a career as a starter is quite possible if he makes further progress with his secondary pitches and command. He’s only 22 years old, still has a lot of development time left on the clock, and has an impressive ceiling.